This is probably as random a piece as there has been in this column in a while, but today I will write about my friend Rodrigo. Well, he used to be my friend until we graduated from Hooper Elementary School and junior high dragged us in separate directions. A few days ago I was watching a Mexican comedy and that triggered the memory of my fifth and sixth grade friend.
I have always been fortunate enough to be bilingual. Being the oldest son to Mexican parents and growing up with my uncles meant that I was the official translator at home. Since Spanish was what I spoke at home and English was what we spoke at school, I enjoyed both worlds with an equal balance.
One day during fifth grade the intercom phone rang, which gave every student hope that they were being picked up to go home. Much to everyone’s disappointment that wasn’t the case; instead we had a new student in class, which was also exciting. When the knock on the door broke the class’ concentration the whispers began “I bet it’s a boy” versus the “What if it’s a girl?”
In walked in a skinny, darkskinned kid who looked petrified. He handed the teacher a slip and Mr. Hodges looked up, pointed at me and motioned for the new kid to walk. All eyes were on him and all he could saw was the carpet in between small glances in my direction. I remember his dark hair was parted to one side and he was dragging his feet. He sat in the chair next to me, crossed his arms and put his head down.
“This is Rodrigo…” Mr. Hodges said. I’m sure he said his last name but that detail escapes me. I turned and said hello to which he replied “hola” in a sheepish voice. “Hablas ingles?” (you speak English?) I asked. “No. Acabo de llegar de Michoacan” (No. I just came from Michoacan).
I didn’t know much about anything at the time but I did remember that Michoacan was that amazing place my parents always talked about and now I was sitting next to someone who wasn’t related who was from that same place as my parents.
Being the chatterbox that I am, I started shooting questions at him: who did you come with? Where do you live now? What are your parents’ names? (all in Spanish). Inch by inch Rodrigo unfolded his arms and picked up his head. Eventually Mr. Hodges told me to stop talking and got back to schoolwork.
Rodrigo would sit next to me for the rest of the semester and at lunch all I did was pick at his brain. Is Michoacan really nice? Are you ever going back? And he answered each and every question. Since he didn’t speak English, I sort of became his translator so we spent a lot of time together. I recall how many jokes he knew.
During recess and lunchtime he would mouth off joke, after joke, after joke to the point where I would run home and tell my parents these jokes in Spanish. They would laugh hysterically and ask where I heard that. “Rodrigo said it at school.”
All of a sudden my parents were interested in meeting the new kid who was using their son as a practice audience for a stand-up comedy act. Rodrigo and his parents would eventually meet my mom and dad. We never really did anything together outside of school but between the morning assembly bell and the dismissal bell, Rodrigo and I were inseparable. By the end of the year he was speaking English to where he had no need for my translation services but we kept having lunch together and hanging out at recess.
We continued to address each other in Spanish since he didn’t know any jokes in English. When we finished our time at Hooper I was assigned to Edison Junior High and he went elsewhere. I haven’t seen him since nor have I thought about Rodrigo in a long time.
However, some Mexican comedy on television brought back some good memories of a childhood friend whose last name I can’t recall but who knew some of the funniest jokes a kid could ever tell.